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Arts Asks: Elif Batuman on Autobiographical Inspiration

By Courtesy of Penguin Publishing Group
By Petra Laura Oreskovic, Crimson Staff Writer

Elif I. Batuman ’99, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is the author of the newly published novel “The Idiot.” The book chronicles the experiences of Selin Karadag, a Turkish American beginning her freshman year at Harvard in 1995. Batuman spoke with The Harvard Crimson about her writing process and sources of inspiration, both literary and autobiographical.

The Harvard Crimson: In the novel, Selin seems to wish to write a novel from the beginning—to what extent would you describe the novel as autobiographical?

Elif I. Batuman: Well, it’s about a Turkish American who is a freshman at Harvard in 1995, and that is my experience ... I wrote the first draft in 2000, 2001. So at that time, all of those things were a lot fresher in my mind, and since that time, what I wrote in the novel has kind of replaced my actual memories. In the process of revision it felt much more like writing a fictional novel, especially because that character, that 18-year-old person, by the time I was revising it, I was 38. . So I was reading it, and I was identifying with all the different people. So I think I wrote it sort of in an autobiographical spirit and then revised it in the spirit of a novel.

THC: I imagine the title of the novel is a reference to Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot.” What would you say the connections are between the two works?

EIB: Russian is thematically important in the novel: Selin takes first-year Russian, to the conversation with the love interest, Ivan. He’s really into Dostoevsky, and she’s not into it so much. So definitely there, but actually the reason I called it “The Idiot” was that I think there are actually parallels between “The Idiot” and my book which I didn’t really think about at the time. But people have asked about them, and now I can kind of see that it’s there. So Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” is also about this young, kind of clueless person who arrives in a foreign place and makes all these friends his own age and has these very strong ideas about how to live and then falls in love with an inappropriate person and runs around in a very inefficient way. So there is some similarity. But really, I called it “The Idiot” because, in the process of revision, I realized that when I had first written the novel, there were parts about it I was embarrassed about, which to me were the embarrassing awkward aspects of my life as a freshman when I was 18. At age 23, when I was writing this novel about it, I tried to have a certain distance between the narrator and the character, I think just to prove, “Oh I’m not so dumb.” Anyway, so there were all these parts that were kind of like, “Oh when we’re young, oh we’re so foolish, and then when we’re old, we’re wiser.” When I was rereading it, all of that seemed like bullshit. The only thing that I cared about was what was happening to that 18-year-old person, even when those things were very difficult and when she was being confronted by her lack of knowledge about the world, and that’s when I thought about this book as “The Idiot.”

THC: How much of a satire is the novel? It certainly seems humorous to an extent, for example in the depiction of lectures in the beginning of the novel and also the characters’ own ideas about their lives.

EIB: I think that the idea was to show that Selin is someone who… She doesn’t totally understand the conventional aspects of language, she doesn’t understand that a lot of what we say is a formula, she doesn’t understand the job interview. You know that she goes to a job interview, and the people at Let’s Go are like, “What do we miss out on when we don’t hire you?” And she’s like “Oh my god, that’s the most perverse question, like how could anyone ask that?” But she goes to her classes, and the people are like, well everything that they say, she is like, “Oh, well, this is what human knowledge is? This is it?” The epigraph of the book is about how when we’re young we take what everyone says as a literal expression of what they meant. We think that everything they say is reflective of the essential part of their character, so we live our lives surrounded by gods and monsters in the way we don’t when we’re older. I think it is true that when we’re older we realize the way that people act is … you know, everyone’s kind of talking off the cuff, and everyone’s, you know, spitballing sometimes. I’ve gotten in classes with undergraduates and said things that were definitely not a transparent reflection of my deeply held beliefs, but you just say things because you have to, at times. Then she obviously doesn’t understand, but the world does look grotesque and cartoonish to her and in that sense, it does look a little bit satirical. Because human relations aren’t meant to be viewed that way.

THC: In the book, “Don Quixote” comes up several times. What is the significance of that?

EIB: The relation to “Don Quixote” … I actually wrote my dissertation about it. It was kind of a theory of the novel, and basically I think the novel is a synthesis between the writer’s favorite book and open-ended reality. I think the first novel, well, I don’t know if it’s the first, but the paradigmatic novel that fits that description is “Don Quixote,” where he loves these chivalric romances. Cervantes clearly loves these romances: he creates a character who loves these romances and who wants to live them. [...] So the plot of the novel is generated as a collision between real life and the kind of scripts that you bring to it, that you want to come true. And people say that “Don Quixote” is a book about how chivalric romances are stupid, or Don Quixote loved his favorite books too much and it ruined his life. I don’t think it’s about that at all. I think it’s about if you only follow your favorite books, then yeah, you end up living in this delusional world that’s cut off from reality, and reality can’t have any way in. But if you only follow your life, if you just went out and talked to windmills, then it wouldn’t be a story, it would just be a list of stuff. The favorite books that you bring in are kind of what gives structure to that. I guess I think of Selin as being a quixotic character in that books are really important to her, stories are really important to her, and she tries to see herself as a person in this story. But the way things turn out doesn’t always correspond exactly to the story that she’s telling. She has these kind of comic misadventures, but they are also very painful, kind of like running into a windmill with a spear would be painful. I guess that’s the connection that I see.

THC: A lot of the characters seem to be international students. What do you think about the connection between English as the language of the novel, the many characters who do not seem to be speaking in their native languages, and Selin’s own relation to her Turkish heritage?

EIB: There’s something different about the way young people talk and the way that the language is alive and new but also different and richer. I think that did make my world feel bigger, to have more different kinds of English. Actually, I’ve taught creative writing in Turkey, at an English language university, where the students were native Turkish speakers, but they were writing their essays in English, and they were very interesting—even the sense of structure, the conventions of writing, the different styles of writing. There were very different, very striking things that I think expand and enrich a language. I think Bakhtin says that the defining feature of a novel is that it has many different languages or dialects in it, within the same national language. Insofar as the novel has many languages, that’s how rich it is, and I think that the non-native but proficient languages really add a lot of richness to the language and to the novel.

—Staff writer Petra Laura Oreskovic can be reached at

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